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December 1997

Charles Rand Penney’s
Assemblage Of A Lifetime


by Lisa BROWN,
in collaboration with other past and present members
of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center Staff

Dr. Charles Rand Penney has established a reputation locally, nationally and internationally as the definitive collector. His wide-ranging interests have led him to collect in exceedingly diverse categories. A very limited list of Dr. Penney’s art collections includes contemporary international prints, drawings, sculptures, paintings, and posters; historic 18th and 19th century prints of Niagara Falls; traditional art from Africa and New Guinea; and folk art from China, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Puerto Rico, Russia, Tahiti, Thailand, Tunisia, the United States, and Yugoslavia. Dr. Penney has collected antiques in categories as wide ranging as American political campaign bandannas; cast iron door stops and garden furniture; Mr. Peanut costumes and articles; postcards from various Western New York locations; quilts and coverlets; Roycroft articles and Elbert Hubbard memorabilia; sheet music; Staffordshire Victorian portrait figurines and plates, platters and pitchers with landscape paintings; and stamps. He has also collected autographs, belt buckles, coins, decoys, foundry wood patterns and molds and textiles. This very limited list represents a small fraction of Dr. Penney’s collecting.

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Charles Rand Penney in his World War II uniform with his mother, father
and sisters, 1943.

In 1991 and ‘92 Dr. Penney donated his important collection of Western New York art to the Burchfield Art Center at Buffalo State College. This major gift of 152 works by 102 artists was one of the largest gifts in the Center’s history. Dr. Penney then made another pivotal gift to the Center, bringing the number of works donated to 1,260 pieces, including significant craft art and Roycroft objects and 183 works of art by watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield. Included in this donation were such Burchfield masterpieces as The Moth and the Thunderclap and an extremely rare Self-Portrait. In honor of this landmark gift the museum was renamed the Burchfield-Penney Art Center during a formal public rededication ceremony held on April 9, 1994, the 101st anniversary of Burchfield’s birth.

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Dr. Penney with two masks from his African Art Collection, 1997.*

A fascinating aspect of Dr. Penney’s collection of works by Charles E. Burchfield is the close friendship that it engendered between the collector, the artist, and the artist’s wife, Bertha. Dr. Penney was a dedicated supporter, collecting work from all periods of the artist’s career, from very early nature studies to symbolic, mature paintings. His patronage brought a welcome stability to the family income. Dr. Penney notes that; “the Frank K.M. Rehn Galleries and the James N. Goodman Gallery [Burchfield’s dealers] would allow me to spread out my payments over a period of time. I was very grateful for this. And these gallery directors thanked me—for by doing this it also meant that Charlie had an assured income—which in the past had experienced ups and downs. Perhaps this is what enabled Charlie to own a new, large and comfortable Buick and to have music in his home that he had not been able to afford in earlier days. He very much enjoyed playing classical records on his stereo.”

Dr. Penney manages his collections without a staff, taking on himself the role of director, curator, researcher, archivist, librarian, education director, public relations director, registrar and docent. Each aspect of the operation is run meticulously and is aimed at fulfilling the mission of the Charles Rand Penney Collection: to acquire, conserve, exhibit and promote culturally significant artifacts and artworks. His collections reflect his considerable skill as a researcher. They are based on original and extensive compilations of data about each object, including information about its creator, history, culture, medium, style, purpose, provenance and physical description. In addition to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, distinguished institutions including the Columbus Museum of Art, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Cornell University, the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton and the University of Iowa Museum of Art have received important gifts from Dr. Penney’s collections.

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Charles Rand Penney in the Gobi Desert, Outer Mongolia, 1975.

The Archives of American Art, a unit of the Smithsonian Institution which provides researchers with access to the largest collection of documents on the history of the visual arts in the United States, says about Dr. Penney in its publication the Archives of American Art Journal, “[he] is surely one of the most prodigious collectors of our time. His perspicacity and appetite were evident from early youth, when he began acquiring drawings and prints, not only from local artists of his family’s acquaintance but also examples of nationally known artists. From these precocious beginnings, Penney’s collection had grown exponentially by the 1990s to encompass scores of different types of art and artifacts.”

In addition to his career in collecting, Dr. Penney is also an attorney and world traveler. Though seemingly diverse, these interests all reflect Dr. Penney’s life-long devotion to the principles of education and excellence. About his travels, noted local historian Dr. Albert L. Michaels has said that, “Penney feels an obligation to know about the area he is traveling in, to understand its history and culture and to be knowledgeable about it when he returns.” He has visited more than 75 countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Mongolia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Siberia, Tahiti, Turkey and Yugoslavia.

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Dr. Penney working in the files of the Charles Rand Penney Foundation, 1965.

In honor of Dr. Penney’s many contributions to the region, Lockport Mayor Kenneth D. Swan awarded him the key to the city on May 18, 1997. He was cited for his devotion to the principles of education and excellence as exhibited through his extraordinary history, which includes service to the country as a counter-intelligence agent with the rank of second lieutenant in the United States Army during World War II and the establishment in 1963 of the Charles Rand Penney Foundation, which loaned artwork extensively throughout the world for thirteen years. Upon the dissolution of the foundation, Dr. Penney donated most of the works of art to the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester. Dr. Penney was instrumental in the development of Lockport’s Kenan Center. As a founding member he helped secure for the Center its historic facility and loaned works from his Charles Burchfield collection for the Kenan Center’s first exhibition in 1967 and from his collection of work by Niagara County artists for its 25th anniversary celebration. The mayor’s citations were echoed in a proclamation by New York State Assemblyman David E. Seaman. Also in 1997, Dr. Penney was honored for his philanthropy by the National Society of Fund Raising Executives and the Arts Council of Buffalo and Erie County. Lockport author Brandon M. Stickney, whose book about Timothy McVeigh was just published, is currently taking initial steps to begin writing Dr. Penney’s biography.

Dr. Penney received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University in 1945 and a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1951. In 1995 he was awarded a prestigious honorary doctor of fine arts degree from the State University of New York. Buffalo State College awarded him the President’s Distinguished Service Award in 1991, named him a Distinguished Fellow of Cultural Studies in 1993 and has appointed him an honorary life member of the President’s Circle. The President’s Distinguished Service to Culture Award was granted by the College of Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York at Potsdam in 1983. He has honorary life membership in the University of Iowa’s President’s Club and Director’s Circle and the University of Rochester’s President’s Society. He is an honorary board member, an honorary lifetime member and a member of the Director’s Circle of the Memorial Art Gallery and honorary trustee of the Buffalo Society of Artists. Other honorary memberships include the Niagara County Antiques Club, Patteran Artists Society, Rochester Art Club and the Mark Twain Society. He is a member of Chi Psi and Phi Alpha Delta. In 1989, the Explorers Club of New York City elected Dr. Penney a fellow, recognizing his extraordinary accomplishments as an international traveler. He is one of only three Western New Yorkers to be given this honor. Dr. Penney is also a member of the Grolier Club, the Library Club of New York, the Pan-American Exposition 1901 Collectors’ Society and the Yale Club in New York among others.

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Charles E. Burchfield, the Moth and the Thunderclap, 1961, watercolor, 36” x 48”, the Charles Rand Penney Collection of Works by Charles E. Burchfield at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

Dr. Penney has said “I have tried to strive for excellence in whatever I undertake, be it small or large. What success I may have achieved has required initiative, imagination and dedication to the task at hand. Satisfaction comes from the hard work that leads to an objective. In all that I do, I adhere to the Golden Rule and to fairness, honesty and understanding in human relationships. And I enjoy living in a small community because it is from such areas that the strength of America comes.”

The Western New York community is made immeasurably richer by the presence of this fascinating, generous and committed man in all his incarnations—lawyer, civic worker, philanthropist, explorer, collector and scholar.

Lisa Brown is the Public Relations Coordinator at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

* Photo taken by Dennis Stierer

Photos other than of the artwork are from the private collection of Charles Rand Penney.


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